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Costa Rica's History

  Costa Rica is unique in many ways and the reasons for this have much to do with its location right in the middle of the northern and southern American continents. With respect to the abundance of flora and fauna few places on earth can match it. Costa Rica for example has more butterfly species than the entire continent of Africa and more bird species than all of North America, all this due to its location as a land bridge between continents. For this reason also, culturally there was a great variety of natives here prior to the arrival of Europeans. Some had come down from the area of Mexico (Mesoamerica), Guatemala and Honduras and others who came up from the Andes and other parts of South America.

 According to archeological investigations the northern part of Costa Rica was populated by the Chorotegas who derived their name from an ancient place in the valley of Mexico called Cholula. These people had fled that area in order to avoid being dominated by the Olmecs and brought with them an elevated degree of social organization and cultural development. They used the leather of deer to create books written in red ink and known as codices. At the other end in the south, we have a people who had come up from the south and maintained strong ties to the Chibchas in the area of what is today Colombia.

They were excellent gold artisans and today you can still see their works of art in the Gold Museum in San Jose. Currently the native population represents less than 2% of the total population of Costa Rica and is most mostly found in Indian reservations. There is a great need for improvement in their conditions of living and health as well as for the protection of their rights and the recognition of their Cultural and artistic contributions to the Costa Rica of today.

  The first European presence came about when Cristobal Colon "discovered" Costa Rica on the 18th of September in the year of our Lord 1502 while on his fourth voyage to America. Of course Costa Rica had been already inhabited for 10,000 years previous to this discovery Columbus had sailed into the Bay of Cariari which is known today as Union in order to make repairs to his ships which had been damaged by a storm. A later explorer corned the name Costa Rica (Rich Coast) and lie was absolute right but for all the wrong reasons. He came up with the name after seeing many national wearing gold and thought that there must he an abundance of gold in the area.

For a couple of centuries Costa Rica remained isolated from all the activities of conquest and domination taking place to the north and to the south. The lack of gold as well as the small numbers of natives (most had been decimated by disease or had run off to the highlands) made it unattractive to the Spanish conquerors who wanted to find great riches in gold and silver or to be given land grants which included many native slaves to work the land. As a result the Europeans here became a hardy lot, independent, self-sufficient and mostly poor to the extent that even the governor had to work his land in order to eat.

Costa Rica lived isolated from the mother country of Spain and in fact it wasn't until October of 1821 (a full month later) that Costa Rica found out Spain had granted independence to its colonies in America on September 15th. It was at this time that coffee growing became the main export business providing income for poor and rich alike. Schools and roads were built and land grants given to any who would grow coffee.

  A road was built to transport coffee from the central plateau area to Puntarenas, a port on the Pacific Ocean, many an oxcart traveled down this road full of coffee. The coffee growers became weal- thy and the elite and sent their children to study in Europe. They also used their influence to elect one of their own for President, Juan Rafael Mora. He would later become a national hero by leading a rag tag army of Costa Ricans to defend the border when William Walker, a five foot three inch dictator who had conquered Nicaragua and declared himself President traveled south with his troops bent on adding Costa Rica to his empire.

Walker had the backing of the James Buchanan, President of the United States who wanted control of a canal passage through Nicaragua and also had the financial backing of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a group whose goal was to spread slavery to Central America. In two battles, one at the hacienda de Santa Rosa near Liberia in the north of Costa Rica and another in the city of Rivas in Nicaragua's southern border, Walker was soundly defeated by the Costa Rican forces which suffered many casualties as a result of being poorly equipped farmers who had answered their country's call to defend their sovereignty It was during these battles that Costa Rica gained a national hero when a humble soldier from the province of Alajuela, Juan Santamaria, volunteered to set fire to an ancient home that was being used by Walker and his men as a fortress.

  He was brought down by a shower of bullets from Walker's army but managed with his last effort to set fire to the building on April 11th, 1856. His only request prior to setting off on this suicidal mission was that his mother he looked after. His bravery turned the tide of the battle and spelled the beginning of the end for Walker's conquest efforts. Walker would be later shot by a firing squad in Honduras. Coffee the "golden grain" continued to be the leading export and the wealth it brought to the coffee growers "cafetaleros" allowed them to dominate politics. In 1870, General Tomas Guardia seized power and established a viable central government and put in check the cafetaleros and their military allies. He also used the taxes from coffee sales to fund civic works and promoted the construction of the railroad from San Jose to the Atlantic coast.

An effort that would cost over 4,000 lives. It was completed in 1890 and by 1899 Costa Rica was the world's leading banana producer. Minor Keith, an American was responsible for the completion of the railroad by obtaining needed funding from England and overseeing its successful completion. In the process he obtained juicy concessions of land all along the railroad route where he planted bananas and made a fortune for himself. His company would later evolve into the United Fruit Company which would control the economies of Central America for decades.

 In the 1940's Rafael Angel Calderon Guardia came to the Presidency and instituted many reforms including a social security system, progressive taxation, and a Labor Code to protect workers rights. Unfortunately, this massive spending and a sluggish economy combined to produce high inflation and bring about demise in his popularity with the masses. In 1 944 he formed an alliance with the Catholic Church and the communists and formed the PUSC (the Social Christian Unity Party), thus his hand picked candidate won the election. When Calderon ran again for election in 1948, he was unexpectedly defeated by a candidate from a third party, Otilio Ulate. Calderon claimed a fraud had occurred and that same night the building where the ballots were was set on fire. The election literally went up in smoke and as a result civil war broke out on March 10, 1948. This set the stage for Jose Maria Figueres, a revolutionary who had been exiled 6 years before to Mexico. "Don Pepe" as lie was affectionately known had founded the National Liberation Armed Forces which trained on his mountain farm. This election fiasco was everything he could have ever hoped for and his army quickly swept down from the mountains and took the towns of Cartago and Limon.

 The war raged on for 40 (lays leaving over 2,000 casualties as the poorly trained government troops of Calderon armed by Nicaragua's dictator Somoza and Figueres' army clashed. Just as Figueres and his army prepared to attack San Jose (the capital), the government army surrendered. Calderon was exiled and many of his followers met the firing squad. Communism was banned and new social reforms were set in place as well as drawing up a new constitution. Apartheid laws were abolished, women received the right to vote, and all banks and insurance companies were nationalized. Presidential term limits were established and an electoral tribunal was set up to guarantee that future elections would be properly run. Best of all he disbanded the army and declared neutrality, then lie handed over power to the rightfully elected candidate, Otilio Ulate and stepped down.

 Don Pepe became a national hero and would later go on to win two separate elections for President in 1953 and in 1970 as the leader of the party he founded in 1951, the PLN (National Liberation Party). Interestingly enough, these two parties, the PUSC and the PLN have basically exchanged power at each election and in fact, both the sons of Calderon and Figueres have been elected to the Presidency. Calderon in 1990 and Figueres in 1994. Unfortunately this back and forth exchange of power has also led to stagnation, nepotism and corruption but on the good side has maintained political stability and also brought peace to Central America through the efforts of President Arias' peace plan which all five Central American Presidents signed in 1987 and which earned President Arias the Nobel Peace Prize. Currently, tourism and high tech have replaced the old foreign income generators of coffee and bananas as the main income earners for the country. While far from perfect, there is no place I would rather be in than Costa Rica arid once you have lived here, I believe you too will agree.

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